Everyone knows that the higher you go, the better the view. But at what point does the view come with too high of a cost? If you’re planning a hike with an incline of higher than 8,000 feet, altitude sickness is not something to take lightly.
What is Altitude Sickness?
Altitude sickness, otherwise known as acute mountain sickness, occurs when you cannot get enough oxygen from the air at high altitudes. This happens most often when a person who’s not accustomed to a high altitude travels higher than 8,000 feet. Because the Earth’s gravity holds oxygen close to the surface, about half of the atmosphere’s oxygen is found below 18,000 feet.
Symptoms of altitude sickness often start off mild and slowly grow more severe and dangerous if you do not seek immediate help. Symptoms include:
- A headache
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling nauseous, and in some cases, vomiting
- Feeling weak and tired, in more severe cases not having the energy to eat, dress yourself, or do anything
- Waking up during the night and not sleeping well
- Feeling dizzy
In more severe cases, symptoms can include:
- Not being able to walk straight
- Feeling faint
- Having blue or gray lips / fingernails
- Breathing and hearing a sound similar to a paper bag being crumpled
When this happens, it’s important to get to a lower altitude right away.
How is it treated?
The best treatment for altitude sickness is to get to a lower altitude. If you’re experiencing very mild symptoms, you may be able to stay at your current altitude and let your body get used to it. However, if you choose to stay at a high altitude, take it easy. Get rest and limit the amount of walking / activity you do. Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol. Whatever you do, do not go to a higher altitude until your symptoms go away. This can take anywhere from 3 – 12 days
What can you do to lower your risks of getting sick?
No matter what you do, you cannot completely prevent altitude sickness. There is no explanation of why some people get sick and others don’t. The only thing you can do to lower your risks are be prepared. These are some steps you can take to help lower your risks of getting sick:
- If you’re going to an altitude higher than 8000 ft, try to spend a night in medium altitude before going higher
- If you plan on flying into a high-altitude city, avoid large meals, alcohol, and being very active before you arrive. Rest and drink plenty of liquids.
- Begin taking ibuprofen 6 hours before climbing to high elevations. Continue to take the ibuprofen every 6 hours while climbing.
- Consider taking acetazolamide (Diamox) or possible dexamethasone before going to a high altitude. Be sure to speak with your doctor before taking any new medications.
- Eat a lot of carbohydrates, i.e. breads, cereals, grains and pasta.
Taking the above precaution is always helpful. Yet, we suggest preparing for your hike in other ways, too.
- Train – Get your body accustomed to the amount of stress you’ll under while hiking. Find steep hills and hike / bike up them regularly, train with your backpack on and loaded, maintain a strong pace when hiking, running, cycling, or swimming, and try to keep your rest breaks to a minimum.
- Drink large amounts of water – When you’re at a high altitude, hydration is a key factor in staying healthy and alert. Be sure to continuously sip water rather than chug it.
- Understand the signs of Altitude Sickness – Being aware of these signs can help you better understand your body and what its needs are before it’s too late.
Overall, hiking is a wonderful way to exercise, and if you take the necessary precautions and listen to your body, you can enjoy the view while being safe.